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Reflecting on UN Night: On the road to intercultural understanding or cultural isolation?

Dr Frazer Cairns, Former Head of Dover Campus

UWCSEA's UN Night: where young people are challenged to evaluate their own cultures.

Even though it is difficult not to smile when you come out of a Physics class and, tucked away in a corner of the campus, there are 30 young people dressed in wellington boots stamping out a South African gumboot dance in unison, it is important to question the basis of UN Night. Yes, all of the work is choreographed by the students; yes, the food is magnificent (though my usual ‘buffet breakfast’ approach of anything-that-looks-nice led to a combination this year of satay, South African sausages, scones and kimchi); yes, the rehearsals are often carried out in the funniest of places; and yes, the final performances are an extraordinary explosion of student talent and enthusiasm. Yet one of the most well known thinkers in international education, George Walker, one time Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organisation, was critical of such things. He often made the point that international education was not just a question of ‘the four fs’ – food, festivals, fashion and flags.

In some ways the question we should ask about events like UN Night reflects the debate around the concepts of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘interculturalism.’ Does UN Night, through the celebration of difference, merely emphasise that difference or does it go further and help people to understand each other’s cultures, share them and so find common ground?

The term multiculturalism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in countries like Canada and Australia. It corresponds to the demand that cultural diversity be accepted and accommodated. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, for example, put forward the idea in 1971 that ‘‘a policy of multiculturalism … is basically the conscious support of individual freedom of choice. We are free to be ourselves.’’ Interculturalism, in the other hand, describes a situation where there is an explicit aim to facilitate dialogue, exchange and reciprocal understanding between people of different backgrounds. In general, being geared toward interaction and dialogue, interculturalism aims for something greater than coexistence. There is an emphasis on societal cohesion and citizenship and perhaps most challengingly, whereas multiculturalism may be relativistic (‘well that’s just how things are for people like them’) interculturalism is more likely to lead to an analysis (and possible critique) of cultural practices as part of the process of intercultural dialogue. 

If UN Night happens once a year, if Indians dance Indian dances, Russians dance Russian dances and Nigerians dance Nigerian dances, and if there is then little connection to the rest of our time (and each other) at school, then UN Night is an excellent example of multiculturalism in action. We are demonstrating a belief in tolerance between cultures and certainly tolerance is a good thing. But it is not always the case that multicultural places are open places. Different cultures can exist next to each other without much contact or participative interaction. In this way groups can become culturally isolated and isolation can lead to humiliation, or to being manipulated to feel humiliated. As Ian Hill (2006) has noted, with the right inducement, humiliated people retaliate.

But that is not what happens in UN Night. Norwegians, Singaporeans and Ukranians dance to bhangra, and South Americans dance the Waltz. Before and after the performances, UN Night acts as a springboard for discussion. And though UN Night is a very public display of cross-cultural engagement it is only part of the establishment of friendships and the ‘living in and with’ rather than ‘living alongside’ other cultures through which young people are challenged to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own cultures and ways of life. What (hopefully) becomes clear is that, however rich it may be, no culture embodies all that is valuable in human life and develops the full range of human possibilities. 

There are, of course, degrees of intercultural understanding that move from the cognitive to the affective domains: from knowledge about other cultures, including language, to skills in speaking other languages and critically analysing the reason behind certain behaviours, to empathy for those of another culture (which does not necessarily mean agreeing with all that the culture represents). During their time at UWCSEA our students plot their own individual journeys along this path. However, the Lebanese writer Aamin Maalouf (2002) urged us to see a ‘multiplicity of allegiances’ each with valid points of view, and UN Night is a joyous and enjoyable step in this direction. 

Whether considered an example 
of multi- or interculturalism, a combination of scones and kimchi will always be a bad idea, however.

Hill, I. (2006) “Do International Baccalaureate programs internationalise or globalise?,” International Education Journal, 2006, 7(1), pp. 98-108. 
Maalouf, A. (2000). In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. New York: Arcade Publishing.